· 3 min read · Features

Bullying causes ripples across business: How to deal with the problem


Bullying in the workplace not only affects staff, it can also affect organisations – both large and small – in their ability to operate.

The Chartered Management Institute (CMI) claims 70% of managers have witnessed bullying in the past three years and that bullying costs the UK £13.8 billion per year.

The Department of Trade and Industry defines bullying as 'the intimidation of an employee by physical or verbal violence, abuse or humiliation'. It includes being picked on, being unfairly treated or blamed for incidents, being routinely overworked and consistently denied career or training opportunities. It is behaviour that happens privately or in front of colleagues and in any form of communication.

In a recent project, Unite the Union worked with one of the UK's largest manufacturing companies, which had problems with its flexible working arrangements, following complaints from its employees that the system was being abused and mismanaged.

One of the real challenges in countering workplace bullying is supporting employees to open up and reveal what is really happening in the work environment. Employees are much more likely to be open and honest when responding to an anonymous online survey than they are in a difficult face-to-face meeting.

Unite used QuestBack's feedback tool, whereby each employee was given an anonymous email account that allowed the union's researchers to survey the workforce and interact with respondents without jeopardising their anonymity. This subsequently encouraged more open and honest answers to difficult questions.

The survey revealed that 79% of employees didn't like the flexible working arrangement and a staggering 94% believed it was being abused. Although this is an ongoing process, the management has already put the results into place, giving it the opportunity to dramatically improve its operations and save money by re-training its employees to become more mobile within the factories and work on different production lines, rather than having to call in agency workers to work on lines falling behind on targets.

Unite conducted a confidential survey of nearly 2,000 British Airways (BA) employees in November 2010. This revealed that nearly three in every four members of BA staff had witnessed or been subject to bullying at the company. The bulk of the respondents to the survey were cabin crew members, whose feedback was that they had been deliberately targeted by BA's management, which is seeking to 'break them and their union in order to drive down terms and conditions'. More than 90% of the BA employees surveyed are aware of company policies relating to bullying and harassment, but over six out of ten people did not report the bullying, with many commenting that they saw no point, due to the company's or management's approach.

The union was able to reach the BA employees through the QuestBack feedback tool which emailed its members and allowed it to build a dialogue with the anonymous survey correspondents, providing real employee evidence to go to management with authority.

With crew scattered throughout the globe, this was far more inclusive and secure than any paper survey could have been. The union was also able to offer personal support and advice issues tailored to their needs to those employees who are facing bullying.

Bullying is a serious offence that must be taken seriously by all employers both large and small. Senior management and HR personnel have a responsibility to ensure adequate checks are in place to identify and support potential issues. Bullying can have a wide range of mental and physical effects on an employee, ranging through depression, headaches, anxiety, memory loss and the inability to do your designated job.

What is needed is a methodology to draw out instances of bullying and the facilities in place to gather details of who is responsible, without placing the victim in a vulnerable position. Often when the aggressor is a line manager, the victim is reluctant to report the instance of bullying to management, as they believe the management will close ranks against them. To get around this, there need to be several avenues for the victim to make their views known. In a high number of our surveys, the victim feels that the first person they would want to approach is a trade union representative or some other outside body who have the ability to raise the issue without naming names.


It is crucial for the HR personnel to keep lines of communication open with staff and have an eye out for high levels of unauthorised absences, as this is a good indicator that something is wrong. An anonymous reporting structure is crucial and must be confidential to ensure that employers feel safe in reporting any bullying behaviour. Any reports of bullying need to be dealt with rapidly in a way that is appropriate to their degree of seriousness.

Some line managers may need to be re-educated in different management styles, whereas other aggressors may commit a sackable offence. There need to be clear guidelines in place on acceptable behaviour in the workplace and these should be communicated on a regular basis to the workforce.

Colin Potter, research officer at Unite the Union